1. An Account of the Land of Witches
I arrived in the Land of Witches at the end of the season of furs. The sun shone, banks of chilly foam lay piled up in the streets, and the river emitted groans day and night as the ice broke into pieces, setting free the witches’ colorful winged boats. My master took a room in the Lean Hotel. This building consists of a single spire that twists up into the greenish, iridescent sky. Ascending to our room presented no difficulties, however, for the steps were endowed with a charm that eroded time.
This shaping of time is one of the marvels of the Land of Witches. I have never seen a people so rested and happy; for them, time runs opposite to the way it runs for us: onerous tasks pass swiftly, while a pleasure may last for weeks or, indeed, forever. I have seen Ygasit, the proprietress of our hotel, wash every dish in the place in the time it takes her to bend her full cheek slightly toward one shoulder, while Verken, the musician who became my particular friend, told me she once played a single note for a year without tiring of its beauty. The smallest child can roll time into a ball and chase it down the stairs or fashion it into elaborate paper chains. In the pastry shops, they drizzle time over the cakes. This molding of time, like all their miracles, is achieved through the Dream Science.
Once I had begun to practice the Dream Science myself, I was able to reduce my time be-neath my master to almost nothing. No sooner had he climbed onto me than he would roll off again. Outside the window, the stars would shrink and vanish like ice.
In the Land of Witches, everything tends skyward. Their beautiful boats, adorned with batlike wings, are as happy among the clouds as on the water; the first time the shadow of one of these gliding marvels passed over me, I shivered, for I thought it must be some giant bird of prey. Wonder overwhelmed me when I looked up to see little witch-children peering curiously at me through the boat’s glass floor. The vessel must have come recently from the river, for it sprinkled the air with droplets. One struck my cheek like a freezing tear.
Their houses resemble plants: many sprout rooms like parsley flowers, which sway on their long stalks when the wind blows. Others, like the Lean Hotel, strain toward the clouds. The witches wear tall headdresses, three to four feet high and bedecked with veils. I thought the adornment cumbrous until I realized that these veils, which float on the air like spidersilk beaded with dew, are in fact a means of catching the wind, the secret behind the witches’ extraordinarily light and buoyant footsteps. Their conveyances are many and varied: when not traveling by boat, or the headdresses that, in a strong breeze, can lift them from the ground, the witches skim over the snow on gold discs, propel themselves through the streets with a sort of javelin, or trot about balanced on huge hoops.
The streets of their city resemble a perpetual carnival. There is always a sound of bells.
They play on great flutes made of whalebone and harps as round as shields.
In the shadow of the mountains, there is a park called the Place of Mourning where, Verken told me, one such as I would spend months, perhaps years, if I were a witch.
The Place of Mourning lies, I have said, in the shadow of the mountains, but this is only one of its locations. Like the entire Land of Witches, this hushed and tenebrous park is porous, its borders fluid, and its atmosphere transportable. I was hanging my master’s smallclothes out to dry behind the hotel when Verken approached me, dancing on top of her traveling hoop, her circular harp clasped firmly under one arm, and called down to me that I should spend a season in the Place of Mourning. When I ignored her, she alighted gracefully, her earrings clashing. Her hoop fell sideways so that it leaned against the wall of the hotel. “You are injured,” she said. I told her that she was mistaken. She reached out and took my wrist, her eyes abrim with compassion and light.
In the Land of Witches there is, every year, a Festival of the Dreaming, during which all the witches dream the same dream together. The dream may be very simple. Last year they dreamt they were taking a pumpkin cake out of the oven. Everyone awoke in tears.
The Dream Science obliterates distance as well as time.
“Let me help you,” Verken said.
At that I snatched my wrist out of her grasp. She was a witch, a musician, and a free woman, and I was not; but there were some things that I knew better than she. On the subject of offers of help, I was something of an expert. In my home city, my mother’s cousin had offered to help her in her poverty by taking her youngest girl child off her hands. He sold me to my first mistress, whose son, a university student, helped me by teaching me my letters. It would increase my value, he said, beyond my current use, which was to provide him with pleasure and sleep at his mother’s feet. When my lady died, her son sold me to a merchant, profiting greatly, as he had predicted, from my ability to read and write. This merchant—my current master—had two kind daughters who, when we were at home, treated me generously to cracked jewelry and cast-off gowns. I preferred to be on the road: to be shivering, here, in the cold sunlight, hanging clothes. “I don’t need help,” I said to Verken.
“Then let me give you a word,” said the witch.
The word she gave me was pomegranate. It was not only a word; it was a dream. In the Land of Witches, words open doors in the dreamscape. In the dream-language, said Verken, pomegranate means dusk and the rattling of dry leaves.
It also means winter. It means black bile and a cloister. It means a tooth.
“Dream of pomegranates,” Verken said, “and you’ll find yourself in the Place of Mourning.”
In the Land of Witches, each word is translatable into a dream. This is the foundation of the Dream Science.
Once I understood what Verken had given me, I began to make notes toward a Dreamer’s Lexicon. Each day, when my master retired for his midday rest, I sat with the musician in the little grape arbor behind the Lean Hotel. I was quite warm now, for I made sure to dream of rabbits. Borrowed sun streaked the wall and made the grapes sparkle like earrings of green glass. Verken admonished me that to describe the sun as “borrowed” was a mistake. This was our sun, she said: the sun of the Land of Witches.
My hands trembled as I took notes, not with fatigue but with excitement. I could roll up my trousers, now that it was so warm; Verken admired my heavy ankle bracelets, and I gave her one, which she fixed to her headdress as an ornament. The next day she informed me that she had been to a marvelous place. What was my elation, and what my terror, when she described to me the massive walls of my own city, the triangular gardens, and the boughs of the sacred trees.
“Impossible,” I gasped.
“Not at all,” she replied, smiling. “It is only necessary to board a boat at the Quay of the Blackened Cod, and travel some few miles south, to where the orange groves begin. And, of course, one must have the proper dream . . .”
In the Land of Witches, life is not cut out of whole cloth, but resembles a series of pockets.
It is not true that there is no suffering there. Indeed, if there were no grief, there would be no need for a Place of Mourning. The witches know disappointment, and sadness, and sickness, and death. Nor are they immune to the cruelties of ordinary human beings. Verken, who traveled much in her search for new musical forms to enrich her repertoire, had once been captured by a strange people who, by flashing lights into her eyes and startling her with loud noises, prevented her from sleeping for five days. Unable to dream or to answer the questions posed to her in an unknown tongue, she sobbed hopelessly in a puddle of her own urine. By the sixth day she was exhausted enough to dream with her eyes open. In an instant she found herself in the Place of Mourning.
“There is enough cruelty in the world,” she told me softly, “to justify all the music ever made.”
I met her eyes. We had never spoken of my master before, but I knew that we were speaking of him now.
In the Land of Witches, one is always touching many lands at once. To raise a cup in a dream is to tumble down a hill.
“I have hurt you,” Verken said, on that grape-green afternoon when she described to me the streets of my own city.
“No,” I answered, weeping. “But my country is so far. It’s so far away. And now you say, in a few miles . . .”
“With the right dream,” she whispered, “you may get there in a few steps.”
She covered my hand with hers. It was warm as a rabbit’s pelt.
2. A Refutation of the Account of the Land of Witches
I, Taharqo of Qorm, jewel merchant, devotee of the Horned God of Mount Napata, member of council in the world’s most illustrious city, father of two daughters and now (for the gods are generous) a son, do submit to the public this refutation of the lies of my escaped slave, Arta.
I purchased this Arta for no small sum in the country of the blacks. She was literate, and possessed a great facility for learning languages, which made her remarkably valuable to me on my travels—though, no doubt, her talents also aided her in her escape. Arta was well-treated under my protection, even affectionately so, amply fed (she had, like all her people, a predilection for sweets), clothed and petted by my own daughters, honored by me with several rich gifts (including a nose-ring of speckled jade), and beaten no more than was lawful. In short, she was a full member of my household. We called her Tan-Tan. In her loss, the kindness of my family has been scorned, the feelings of my daughters wounded, the burdens of my lady wife compounded, my business dealings hampered, my purse outraged, and my pride trampled underfoot.
As if this loss were not enough (and I intend to discover how it was done, if I have to hold the proprietress of the Lean Hotel over her own stove!), I have had to endure, for several weeks now, the interrogations of friends and even strangers who know that I have lately returned from the Land of Witches. For my eldest daughter (a charming girl, guilty of no more than the natural thoughtlessness of her sex), in going through my belongings after my return, discovered the infamous Account of the Land of Witches among my papers and made several bound copies of it for her friends. When asked why she had done so, she stared at me dumbfounded. “Why, Father,” she said, “it is a diverting story; how could it be wrong?” On the Plains of Khod, where my honored father spent his adolescence, there is a saying that any girl can match wits with an ostrich.
The results of my daughter’s indiscretion are well known; the Account of the Land of Witches has been copied all over Qorm; it is available for purchase at every bookseller’s, despite my efforts to buy up the copies, or argue to the merchants the falseness of the document. The nature of the so-called “Dream Science” is debated in cafés, and I have heard some philosophy students have taken to sleeping all day. I have therefore decided to ride before the storm, as the saying goes, and release my own, true document to the public.
Know then that the Land of Witches is a meager, muddy little country, cold as a spider’s affections and dull as paste. The “river” of which my slave writes is an icy sludge, the Lean Hotel more of a stick than a spire, and the streets of the city narrow and stinking. There are no flying boats—if there were, the inhabitants would all fly away at once and settle in some more comfortable location. The wind comes over the water like a spear. I never heard bells; perhaps they were drowned out by the yapping of the dogs.
The natives of the Land of Witches are uniformly stupid and their language as nonsensical as the yammering of goats. Not even Ygasit, the greasy, gap-toothed proprietress of the hotel, can speak more than ten words in any civilized tongue. I depended on my slave Arta to conduct any business at all, for, with her gift for mimicry, she was soon chattering enthusiastically with the witches—who, I was disappointed to learn, believe that ornaments can only be given away, and not bought, making them utterly worthless as customers.
“But where do you get the jewels to give your friends?” I asked Ygasit through my slave. The witch laughed, her eyes twinkling through the gloom (for we stood in her kitchen, the fog of her noxious cooking as thick as soup), and answered that she received them from other friends.
“But where are they made?” I demanded.
Arta repeated my question, and, when Ygasit had finished spitting out words as barbed and slimy as fishbones, informed me that the witch—who, mind you, was clad in a grimy apron, and reeked of onions—considered my question indelicate.
“No one asks where they come from,” Arta said. “They are considered tokens of love, and no one asks where love comes from, or where it goes.”
She kept her eyes trained on my beard, as usual. She never met my eyes. I thought her expression respectful then; now, I remember it as sly.
The prodigious idiocy of the witches, who wear jewels but will not buy them, might have left me entirely bankrupt, save that I happened to have picked up some perfumed soaps in the south, and these the witches liked and purchased gladly. I therefore determined to stay until I had sold all of my small stock, in order that the trip should not be wasted. Each day I walked through the dirty, freezing streets to the little market where the witches do a great deal more talking than buying. How well I remember the snaggle-toothed children watching me from a balcony, their eyes gleaming like those of starving beasts. My slave told the truth about the witches’ headgear: both sexes wear towers of knotted cloth on their heads and sway through the streets like giraffes.
In short, a more miserable and useless country can hardly be imagined. This alone should be enough to disprove the existence of any “Dream Science.” If it were possible to travel by means of dreaming, believe me, no one in the Land of Witches would get out of bed.
If you are still determined, reader, to take seriously the scribblings of a duplicitous, scheming, lawless runaway slave, then at least consider the contradictions of her narrative! How could she be warm, and the rest of the city freezing? Why, upon our arrival, did we experience the city as freezing, when someone was surely dreaming that it was warm? How, precisely, does one travel by dream? Why does Verken claim to have dreamt first and traveled afterward, in one case, and in another to have traveled the instant she dreamed? How could a child cut time into paper chains? And how can the Land of Witches be everywhere at once—as one must assume my slave to be claiming, since her Place of Mourning shifts its borders? It is all the most tiresome nonsense! A shifting border is no border at all.
Here is the truth: my slave Arta, a most valuable piece of property, has been stolen by a witch called Verken, who probably planned to steal her from the moment we arrived and took to loitering about the hotel for no other purpose. This Verken is a tall, loose-limbed woman with a headdress of dirty red-and-orange cloth, who pretends to be a musician. This she certainly is not; for the sounds she drew from her barbaric harp, as she lounged barefoot in the arbor, resembled nothing so much as the farts of a gazelle. Ygasit, I am convinced, was an accessory to the crime, for, when questioned, she would only frown and repeat “No good, no good,” pressing my shoulder with a thick finger to confirm that she meant I, and not the thieving Verken, was in the wrong. I departed the Land of Witches in a cold fury; but I intend to return in a hot one. I am even now assembling a company of fighting men. I will go back to the Land of Witches, and if I cannot retrieve my property, I will at least make sure that no one dares call Taharqo of Qorm a fool.
3. A Refutation of the Refutation of the
Account of the Land of Witches
Another fruitless day at the embassy.
Coming home, the taxi passed one of the usual crowds. Only a few people wept openly. The blast must have occurred several hours before. A pair of trousers hung on a dead electric wire, as if it were washing day.
Now the evening turns blue. The heat dissipates.
My brother met me at the door. I shook my head. This is all we require, now, to communicate the essentials: no, there’s no progress, no visa, not yet, I can’t get out.
“You shouldn’t have come,” my brother says, not for the first time.
I know. I know.
Once it’s dark, I pretend to sleep. Lie on the bed with my face to the wall, the sheet over my head. I can hear the scrape of my brother’s plastic slippers on the floor. Voices, too, the voices of other people come to visit. Neighbors, aunts. Once the sun goes down, there’s nothing to do but talk. They exchange news and warnings and advice. Somebody has a pain in his stomach; my brother pulls a bottle of precious soda from under the bed. Warm American soda in the warm night, not to quench the thirst but as medicine. Slowly moonlight fills the air of the city like milk. It’s bright enough to read by. It glows through my sheet. In the distance, every so often, interrupting the conversation, blasts like dishes breaking.
The “Account of the Land of Witches” is a document with no catalog, an orphaned textual fragment with no archive. The appearance of the words “Napata” and “Qorm” (Kerma) led Augustus Kircher to date the “Account,” quite convincingly, to the ninth century BCE; however, the version of demotic Egyptian used, with its distinctive “swallow-tailed” plural markers, is found in no other extant text, making all attempts at dating the document uncertain and inconclusive. And if the text’s place in time is vague, its place in literature is equally so. Is it simply an unusual autobiographical record? Or is it (as Kircher surmised—“autobiography being unknown in the Kingdom of Kush”) some sort of occult text, written in a coded language known only to the priesthood? Do the first two parts (the “Account” and the “Refutation”) form a thesis and antithesis, and the third (the “Dreamer’s Lexicon”) a sort of synthesis? Are we looking at the sole trace of an ancient religion? Or does the “Account,” rather, disprove, or at least complicate, Kircher’s claims regarding autobiography?
This dissertation takes the position that these possibilities are not mutually exclusive, and that the “Account,” the “Refutation,” and the “Lexicon,” taken together, can be read as both autobiographical fragments and the foundational scriptures of a spiritual tradition heretofore unknown . . .
The sun goes down. No moon tonight.
“You’ll wreck your eyes,” my brother says.
He’s right, it’s too dark to see, but that doesn’t mean I can’t write. Tomorrow I’ll find these lines flung across the page, running over each other like the footprints of armies that have met by night.
I don’t work on the dissertation in the dark. I just scribble these private notes. I can’t risk writing important ideas in an illegible scrawl. I fear losing my only chance. The perfect thought, the one moment when a customs agent softens in a good mood.
“All right, miss.” The stamp. I dream about it.
I call my professor in Madison on my brother’s phone. My own ran out of credit long ago. The connection’s tentative, full of holes. I’m on the starlit roof, my brother crouching beside me.
My brother watches anxiously, without moving.
My professor’s voice, happy and worried, frayed across the distance. I’m catching every third syllable. He’s had to give my class to another graduate assistant, he couldn’t keep on teaching it himself.
“I understand,” I tell him. I wonder if he hears “I . . . stand.”
“When you get back, we’ll figure out a way for you to keep your assistantship. Has there been any progress?”
“You gave them my letter? My phone number?”
“Well. Don’t lose hope! And keep working. Think of it as a writing holiday!”
A small shudder in the distance. Another blast.
He says something I can’t make out.
“Stand up,” my brother snaps, “you’ll get a better signal.” He can’t understand this conversation in a foreign tongue but he interprets my panic, the rising tone of my voice. He hisses at me, he says I need to move into that corner, where there’s a narrow view of the sea: that’s where the signal’s always best. He’s cursing now and yanking on my arm and I can only hear my professor’s voice as a series of broken yelps. I’m standing and stumbling, swamped in my brother’s impatience, the charcoal scent of his clothes, and I ought to be angry because he’s only making it harder to hear, but I’m everywhere at once in this moment, at home and yet magically transported back to campus by my professor’s voice, and I’m happy. I’m so happy.
What does it mean to dream of a visa?
I used to think of air travel as a sort of Dream Science. The dry cocoon of the plane was a zone of sleep. Then you’d wake up in a different country, in the long snake of the customs line, the windows full of pearly foreign light. It seemed easy, like sliding into a dream, even if sometimes you tossed and turned on the way, even if they made you empty everything out of your bag. The indignities themselves had a dreamlike quality, absurd: the room where a stranger patted down your body and rifled through your hair.
My plan was to visit my brother and then travel north in search of the home city of Arta, the writer of the “Account.” Then I’d go west to Khartoum. I’d pay a visit to the museum, then make my way to the ruins of Napata . . .
Everyone was worried about me: my professor, my uncle, my friends. And I laughed. I was filled with the spirit of the dream-travelers, Arta and Verken. I came home. And home was crumbling, a trap. I couldn’t go anywhere I’d planned. So I gave up my trip. I’ll go back to the States, I said . . .
I’ll go back. But they wouldn’t let me on the plane to London, and so I couldn’t get back to Chicago, and so I couldn’t get back to Madison. I begged them. I’m a student! But there was something wrong with my papers, I never knew what. You need a different visa, they said.
“You should really go to an American embassy,” the agent clucked, frowning over my papers. But there’s no American embassy here.
Sometimes I see the world traversed by jagged lines of borders, like the cracks across a broken windowpane.
Can you see anything through that window? Do you recognize the world?
Don’t touch it; you’ll cut yourself.
Tonight, on the radio, an old Sudanese song. The kind my father used to love. I sat in the dark and cried. “Why did you have to study history,” my brother said.
Notes toward a dissertation. The location of the Land of Witches—if such a place exists—has confounded scholars for over a century, ever since the document, written on papyrus, was discovered in a grave at Kuraymah (where I can’t go). It is clear enough that the merchant Taharqo was a citizen of Kerma (where I can’t go); as for Arta, the author of both the “Account” and the “Lexicon,” most scholars believe she came from Bahr el-Ghazal (where I can’t go), though I will argue that her home was more likely in modern Somaliland (where I can’t go). It is possible to make claims, however tentative, about these matters. The Land of Witches presents a more serious problem. Was it, as Kircher thought, somewhere in Europe (where I can’t go)? Was it in China (where I can’t go) or even Siberia (where I can’t go)? What can be determined from the tantalizing and fragile clues we are given: bells, giant hoops, a river, and snow? Is the Land of Witches locatable by anyone—or by everyone? Is it a complex hallucination? A state of mind?
I lie on my side for hours.
Don’t talk to me. I’m trying to sleep.
I’m hot and then cold.
I don’t go to the embassy anymore. It’s too dangerous, and in any case they wouldn’t admit me, or anyone else. Nobody gets out now. The borders are closed.
I can hear my brother and the others talking down the hall in the communal kitchen, over the clacking of mortar fire and the crackle of boiling ghee. I chew on the sheet, but I won’t cry. I hate myself for not getting up. I’m appalled at the way I’ve sunk when my brother keeps moving, calculating, scheming. Money tied up in a sack inside his clothes. He wants me to call my uncle in Canada again, the one who’s paid for my education. I can’t, I can’t face him, the scolding, the pain in his voice, his rage at my arrogance, my stupidity, the way I’ve thrown the family’s resources away. “You’ll die there,” he said the last time we spoke. The ground shakes, and I think he’s right, but there’s only a brief lull in the kitchen conversation. The sound of frying, the smell, doesn’t stop at all. I think of how my mother ran away six years ago, to the camp. And how she ran back again, unable to bear it. She spoke to me of the dirt, of her fear of snakes and lions on the journey. Never her fear of men. The stars would shrink and vanish like ice. By “mother” I don’t mean mother, I mean the aunt who tells me “I am your mother now.”
I hesitate to write this but I have begun to travel in dreams . . .
Faces at checkpoints. Your father drinking tea. The explosion, the gap in the wall. You can see his leg. Suddenly Canada. Wind across the St. Lawrence River. There are no flying boats. Oh, Sagal, don’t come home. The phone pressed against your ear in the student union where someone is walking by with a pitcher of reddish beer. Crows in the sky like the broken pieces of someone who thinks, I could be, I should be, dead. What does it mean to dream of these things?
Pomegranate. In an instant she found herself in the Place of Mourning. I return to my dissertation, and it looks completely different. I can’t understand it anymore. Oh, I understand the words, but I can’t comprehend why somebody would write them. It all seems so obvious: the chapter on gender, the chapter on animals, the chapter on the trace. I can’t work up the energy to reflect on the controversial translation of the word “cloister,” or even the fate of Taharqo of Qorm. “Did Taharqo ever return to the Land of Witches? Is it possible to identify him as the ‘southern lord’ described by an anonymous Egyptian scribe, who, ‘together with a vast company of mercenary soldiers, was swallowed by that pale crocodile, the Sea’?” This work, which used to excite me, now seems utterly remote, featureless, like a desert seen from an airplane window. While the “Account” itself, the “Lexicon,” and even the “Refutation”—these brim with light. Each word translatable into a dream.
I was in a building. It was made of brick. Every few steps a patch of grass. Old men were working at little desks. My mother offered me 7-Up in a gourd. There was a camel in the background with a saddle of aluminum foil.
The kitchenette in my dorm room had gotten smaller. I dropped a dish in the sink and it broke. I turned on the garbage disposal to grind up the pieces. A man stood behind me holding a wire, his face wrapped in a keffieh. He said everyone acted like me, that’s why the disposals were always getting broken.
I decided to go to the Land of Witches. “I’m going,” I told my mother. She grunted and told me to lie down. She offered me 7-Up in a gourd. “Don’t get up,” she said. Her necklace glinted in the moonlight that fell through the bars of the window. Who gave you that? I tried to ask.
My father was drinking tea. The wall crumbled. I was out back, at the tap in the courtyard. I was trying to wash out his socks. Money fell out of his sock and I cried. Crows flew low, close by. Their wingbeats whispered, “You will wear a black wedding dress.”
I decided to go the Land of Witches. “I’m going,” I told my brother. He was muffled in an enormous coat, with sandals on his feet. “Come with me,” I begged him. “Dream of pomegranates.” His feet were ashy and I realized we were standing in the snow.
Winter. Black bile. A cloister. A tooth.
I am going to the Land of Witches.
“I’m going,” I told my brother. He grunted and told me to lie down. He brought me a cup containing a few tablespoons of American soda that turned circles on my tongue, flat and sweet. “Don’t get up,” he said. Moonlight fell through the bars of the window and glinted on the gun against the wall. Who gave you that? I tried to ask. I think it was my father. Against my throat I could feel the gentle, comforting irritation of the thin gold necklace he gave me before he died.
I remembered my brother’s face the day I came home, that desperate brightness, every muscle tensed to keep him from slapping me.
Tonight he was all softness, touching my hair while the city shook. I clutched his hand. The noise grew louder and louder. A terrible clatter approaching. In the inferno of sound and light I understood why my dissertation had failed. No one can practice the Dream Science alone. Everything depends on the Festival of the Dreaming, when all the witches dream together. “Come with me,” I shouted at my brother, “dream of pomegranates.” He shook me off and crawled to the gun by the wall, moving like a snake or an orphaned child. When I rose from the bed he screamed at me to stay down. I crouched but reached for my papers on the table. Everything shook and I could read my writing in the leaping light. “Notes Toward a Dreamer’s Lexicon.” “Dusk,” I screamed. “The rattling of dry leaves.” My brother was shouting, the city was shouting, the sky was shouting. How will we fall asleep in this noise? I thought of Verken dreaming with her eyes open. “Dream with your eyes open,” I told my brother. The gun was at his shoulder, his gestures expert, fluid. My voice was raw. I tasted blood. Lightning. The door opened.
4. Notes Toward a Dreamer’s Lexicon
Pomegranate: Dusk. The rattling of dry leaves. Winter, black bile, a cloister, a tooth. Dream of pomegranates to enter the Place of Mourning.
Rabbit: Springtime. Erotic love. Silk sleeves. Ease after a long illness. Green.
Ice: The hidden life of things. Music, especially bells.
Bat: Magic. A holy place. A child.
Parsley: A feast.
Veil: Gentleness. A curtained window. Dawn.
Javelin: Movement, possibly from fear. A pounding heart.
Ostrich: A woman with plans. Dream of ostriches to enter the Place of Tents.
Fur: Unspoken longing. Lamplight. The river.
Boat: A new friend. A change in weather. Domestic uncertainty. An illness.
Cake: An intimate event.
Spider: Intellectual endeavors. A wound.
Wrist: Failure. Attachment to sorrow. A conspiracy.
Urine: Forgetfulness. Stone. A torch.
Cup: A fall.
Grapes: Jewelry. The Place of Emerald Noon. An exchange of gifts.
Pumpkin: Tears. Relief. A project begun at the proper time.
Fog: A walled city. The cry of a miracle vendor. Home.
Additional notes by Sagal Said
Milk: Moonlight. Mother. Toil. Circular thoughts. Buried rage. A hand.
Charcoal: Alchemy. Transfer. The sea at night.
Tea: Father. Exploding plaster. Ordinary death.
Gourd: Discovery. The act of overflowing.
American soda: Economic exploitation. Frustration. Healing. Love.
Wire: A threat.
Dishes: Whole: A beach. Broken: A storm. Disintegration.
Necklace: A gift. A chain. Constraint. Return. A debt.
5. The Travelers
We set off on a windless, moonlit night, a night that often returns to us, skimming along our pathway like a boat. At times we have even boarded this boat and passed into our own point of departure, into the beginning of our journey. Of course this origin moment is never the same. We find the identical silent town, the familiar moon suspended among the mobile towers, but passing on tiptoe through our Diviner’s old apartment, we discover a row of spoons laid out on the carpet. These spoons were certainly not in this position on the night we left. We debate their meaning in whispers so as not to wake the household. The Mountaineer is for going on, the Harpist for exploring the rooms. Meanwhile, the Diviner discovers a flask in the otherwise empty birdcage. She takes a sip from the flask, which makes her shudder, and announces that we must descend the ladder. Sure enough, there is a ladder outside the window. The Mountaineer goes down first. The Diviner leaves a lock of hair on the couch for her son to find in the morning.
I, of course, have taken some paper and a bottle of ink from the cluttered old desk. As our Scribe, I am always in need of these materials. At the bottom of the ladder we find an afternoon in an insect-haunted restaurant that smells vaguely of scorched rice. This suits me very well, as it gives me the chance to arrange my papers at the table while the others order food. The Archivist and the Diviner argue over a word on one of the peeling posters, whether it means “palace” or “chair.” Among the papers I have taken I find a few penciled diagrams, perhaps the schoolwork of the Diviner’s son, and a number of notes on the kingdom of Kush that may have come from the hand of our own Sagal. Immediately the blue outside the skylight intensifies. The waiter brings us rice cooked with tomatoes, an oily mess we devour with delight in the suddenly splendid atmosphere, the atmosphere of a morning after dreams. The Archivist leans forward and stubs out her cigarette in excitement (a cigarette made, alas, with a scrap torn from my records—the Archivist thinks she’s returning them to the source of all dreams, while I mourn their loss—part of our longstanding argument about hope and cyclical time). The Archivist swings her legs down from their resting place on her enormous pack, which sits beside her on the floor, and plants her feet, ready for business. She seizes my pen and begins making notes on the notes, cross-referencing. “Museum,” she mutters. “Crocodile. Wedding. Trace.”
This is how we travel. The Mountaineer strides before us. The Archivist follows, cheerful under her pack. This pack, stuffed with paper and tied all over with sheaves, bundles, and scrolls, weighs nearly as much as the Archivist herself. Short and stocky, her cheeks blasted by wind and her eyelids creased with sun, she looks more like a mountaineer than our Mountaineer, and we often joke together that we must be the most athletic members of our respective professions ever known. Her strength derives from the pack she carries, mine from the wagon I haul behind me, on which our drunken Navigator moans in his sleep. At intervals he wakes to gaze about him in childish happiness and let fall a few precious words concerning his dreams. He is such an excellent Navigator that no one minds his infirmity, or the astounding cunning with which he acquires all manner of liquor and drugs, though it is annoying when we have to go uphill, or worse, through mountains such as those which have surrounded us for two days. Then our progress seems agonizingly slow, as the Mountaineer, who despises haste as much as idleness, laboriously constructs, deconstructs, and reconstructs a system of pulleys to drag our party up the cliff-sides. One would think the Navigator could at least strap himself into a harness! But no, he lolls like a baby being dressed. Today was particularly bad, as the Diviner had been practicing blood divination, and was nearly as weak as the Navigator.
Her lips were gray as the stony cliffs. “Shouldn’t we get out of here?” I whispered as I buckled her harness for what seemed the twentieth time. Dreams swooped about us in the dusk, all of them more attractive than our current location. One bore a beautiful stretch of beach, like the rind on an orange. With an effort the Diviner shook her head and pointed upward. We toiled on until we passed the snowline. Now, from the cave where we shelter, I can see a vista of harsh dry stars and hear the desperate howling of the wolves.
Firelight flickers. The Navigator sleeps, the Archivist smokes, and I wonder how long we have been on this journey, and whether we will succeed in piecing together a map of the Land of Witches, and whether we will ever go there. I remember again the night we set out, and how the Mountaineer trembled, overcome, he said in a strangled voice, by the thought of redemption. I watch him as he scrubs his naked torso with a hot sponge, his back whitened by the stripes he received in Laceration Field. The Archivist catches my gaze. “Don’t lose heart,” she says. “Remember the gardens!” And even the Diviner smiles from the depths of her weariness, recalling the abandoned gardens where the Archivist and I, filled with reverence, left notes for other amateur witches on the trees.
Gently, our Harpist begins to sing. A moment of hushed awareness, like the instant when one realizes one is dreaming. The Diviner raises herself on an elbow and sniffs the air. It is just midnight. The wind dropping. The sky clear.
Excerpted from Tender: Stories by Sofia Samatar. Published by Small Beer Press. Copyright © 2017 by Sofia Samatar. All rights reserved.